Is the Death Penalty Coming Back with a Bang? Why Executions by Firing Squad Could be Making a Comeback in the US

by Ethan Kim
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Have you ever heard of shooting people with guns in unison as punishment for a crime? It might sound like something from the past, but it’s making a comeback! Idaho passed a law that allows firing squads. That means it joins Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina who use this method of punishment too.

Many states are searching for ways to replace lethal injections as pharmaceutical companies don’t allow the use of their drugs anymore. Some people believe firing squads could be a less cruel option than injections, even though shooting people with bullets is violent. But some think it’s not that simple or there may be other things to consider. This is about the current state of using firing squads in the United States.

‘The Deadly Firing Squad

Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death in a prison in Utah on June 18th, 2010 for killing an attorney during an unsuccessful attempt at escaping from the courthouse.

Gardner sat in a chair as sandbags surrounded him and a paper target was pinned onto his chest. Five staff members that volunteered for the task shot at Gardner using .30-caliber rifles from 25 feet away. Shortly afterwards, he was declared dead two minutes later.

A secret bullet was put into a gun, but nobody knew which one. This way, people who felt guilty later on can think that they might not have fired the deadly shot. Utah is the only place in the last 50 years to have used firing squad executions, according to an organization in Washington D.C. called the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Unseen Side of Death Penalty–Firing Squads and the Search for Lethal Drugs

In Idaho, using a firing squad to execute someone would only be allowed if the drugs needed for a lethal injection can’t be obtained. A lot of drug companies no longer let their drugs be used because they want them to save lives instead of being used in execution.

States have found it hard to get their usual medication for death penalties, like sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. So they’re using medicines like pentobarbital or midazolam instead, but some say they also cause strong pain.

Plus, some states are thinking about introducing electric chairs and gas chambers or have already done so. Therefore, people are discussing if firing squads should be an option as well.

Is Firing Squad Practically More Humane Than Lethal Injection?

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor believes that executing people with a firing squad is more humane than other methods. It is thought that bullets shot at the heart can cause someone to quickly lose consciousness and bleed to death without much pain. In a 2017 opinion, she wrote that “death by shooting may also be comparatively painless”.

An Alabama prisoner wanted to be killed by a firing squad, but the Supreme Court said no to his request. Justice Sotomayor argued that killing people with lethal drugs may not be as kind as it seems because prisoners can still feel pain before they fall completely unconscious. She wrote that this could be “the cruelest experiment yet.”

“Firing Squads

In a federal court case in 2019, an anesthesiologist called Joseph Antognini said that dying without any pain from a firing squad is not guaranteed. He said that it depends on where the bullets hit someone, which could keep them conscious up to 10 seconds and these seconds can be extremely painful due to broken bones or damage to the spinal cord.

Others point out that killings using a firing squad are more dramatic and gory compared to lethal injections causing distress for all involved, including relatives of the person being killed, executioners, people who have to clean-up afterwards, and other witnesses.

92% of Executions Didn’t Go as Planned

You could say that reliability is when someone gets the death penalty and it works as expected. A professor from Amherst College who studies politics and law looked into 8,776 executions in the United States between 1890 and 2010, and he discovered that 3.15% of them didn’t go as planned.

Some really bad stuff happened during 7.12% of lethal injections, 3.12% of hangings and 1.92% of electrocutions. For example in 2014, the execution of Clayton Locket went wrong because he was clearly uncomfortable after the injection of a drug called midazolam. On the other hand, none of the 34 firing squad executions appeared to be messed up. A famous person (Sarat) is against capital punishment and thinks it should be stopped.

The Death Penalty Information Center reports that in 1879, a person named Wallace Wilkerson was shot with rifles by a firing squad, however the shots missed his heart and it took 27 minutes for him to die.

Execution Methods Through Time

Firing squads are mostly associated with the military and have not been a common way to kill people who have been sentenced to death. According to researchers, over 15,000 people were executed from colonial times until 2002. Out of them, 143 died by firing squad, 9,322 by hanging and 4,426 by electrocution.

Does The Constitution Guarantee a Painless Execution? Supreme Court Makes a Controversial Decision

The courts have said that prisoners who want to challenge an execution method must give another way of killing them, and prove that it is less painful. This means that those on death row must try to convince the court why they should be killed by firing squad instead.

In 2019, the Supreme Court said that as long as a method of execution isn’t cruel or unusual, it’s allowed even if there is pain involved. That means the Constitution doesn’t guarantee prisoners a painless death; just like it hasn’t been able to keep many other people from feeling pain. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote this opinion for the majority of 5-4 judges who voted in support.

Deciding if a death request is too cruel or unusual can depend on how much pain it causes, according to Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. If it happens to cause more pain than necessary, then it’s considered inhumane.

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